It looks like a mushroom but is actually a flowering plant. It is nearly translucent and contains no chlorophyll. It needs no sunlight to survive. So, what is this strange plant found in almost every state in the USA? Chances are, you've never seen or heard of this mysterious plant - but it may be growing in a dark shady spot near you!
The scientific name, Monotropa uniflora, is not nearly as interesting as this plant's more common names: Indian Pipe, Ghost Pipe, Ghost Plant, and even Corpse Plant. Sounds strange, right? You have no idea. Read along to find out just how very creepy and mysterious this plant actually is...
This small, pale and elusive plant is often mistaken as a fungus. From it's looks alone, one could easily see why. It often grows at the base of trees or in decaying leaves in dark forests - which also lends fuel to it's mistaken identity. It's fleshy and pale and very small - usually only growing to around six to ten inches tall. It is, however, classified as a plant - not a fungus or a mushroom. Just a very special, mysterious plant that is a living parasite and associated with dead people and ghosts. Yikes!
So how does a plant survive that doesn't need sunlight? This is one of the reasons this plant is so unique. Firstly, having no chlorophyll, the substance that makes most plants green and the thing they use in photosynthesis to make food from sunlight, the ghost pipe has to depend on another way to make food. This plant is classified as a mycotrophic wildflower. “Myco” means “fungus,” and “trophic” refers to nutrition or food. This means that it gets it's nutrients from a fungus...and here's how. Although the flowering stems visible above ground seem small and fragile, the ghost pipe plant has a large underground root system. These roots tap into the roots of nearby trees for food. But it's not directly into the root system of the tree - it taps into fungi that is also tapped into the trees. Pretty clever, huh? Sort of a second-hand parasitic way to mooch nutrients - but it works... and does so without damaging or killing either host. Oddly enough, I've never heard it referenced as the "vampire plant" - although I suppose that's because vampires eventually kill their host.
So, here we have a ghostly plant that behaves much like a fungus, lurks in the darkest of forests, and did I mention: it only blooms a few days? That's correct - this plant spends around 300 days a year just lurking and living underneath the cool dark earth. The name "Corpse Plant" is becoming more appropriate at this point! Yikes again!
Although you may have never seen or been aware of this flower, it has been found to grow in almost every state in the U.S. with the exception of the extreme southwest where conditions are hot and arid. It remains elusive to most of us, however, and is considered rare, still. In my 50+ years of trekking and spelunking in the deepest of woods across the southeastern U.S., I have yet to find an actual specimen of this plant. With summer coming to an end soon and the weather being very dry, I plan on giving it one more shot. I will, however, admire the plant, should I find it...take some photos...then leave it as nature presented it. Although the Ghost Pipe is currently not on the endangered species list, many experts say that it may be soon as we are losing more and more old hardwood forests daily which is their natural habitat. If you go looking for this mysterious plant, please leave it as you found it, too - else the term "Ghost Plant" could prove to be a true description.
I leave you with the words of poet Emily Dickenson, whose favorite flower was the ghostly Indian Pipe and who penned these words in 1879:
'Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe —
'Tis dimmer than a Lace —
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place —
Nor any voice imply it here
Or intimate it there
A spirit — how doth it accost —
What function hath the Air?
This limitless Hyperbole
Each one of us shall be —
'Tis Drama — if Hypothesis
It be not Tragedy —
- Emily Dickenson